Complexity and the Universe of Education

Article excerpt

Introductory Vignette

While teaching in a public school, I had a teacher aide (TA) working with me in my so-called "bilingual classroom." So-called because the emphasis was not on bilingualism but on learning English as a Second Language (ESL) at the expense of the learner's mother tongue. When it came to teaching ESL, I remember assigning the students that were least fluent in English to the TA. How could I take time for these students when I had other, more fluent English speakers to teach and prepare for end-of-the-year examinations? After many years of reflecting on my experiences as a public school teacher, I have come to realize I did not have the professional ability to deal with the entire spectrum of language ability in my classroom. Perhaps this is because I was a beginning teacher and it takes years to develop an understanding of students' perspectives. It could also be that the teacher education program I went through did not prepare me for the complexities of teaching. From my perspective today, the complexities of society had crept into my classroom and negated my professional competencies. The problem is that these complexities were there all along, and I did not recognize them because of my limited views. However, I also complicated the issue by constraining my professionalism when I evaluated students with an unconscious rubric that filtered out the knowledge that students possessed because my focus was on what was missing.

My experience is perhaps not very different from many teachers of today with one exception. Specifically, the plethora of contextual issues that today's teacher must deal with when compared to my public school teaching days. No, I am not suggesting that the variety of contextual issues is any more or less now than it was then. My argument is more along the lines that the contextual factors that are a part of today's classrooms far exceed the professional capacity of teachers, resources, and the education system. For example, today's framework of accountability did not exist in my time. Additionally, the privilege I enjoyed was being able to distance myself from a contextual issue (ESL) by using in-class resources. The ability to call on resources that can help shore up any pedagogical situation that far exceed the professional capabilities of an educator is not a privilege shared by many teachers, especially in some rural and urban classrooms.

Contextual Issues

Lately, I have been working with a colleague on understanding how science teachers identify and define obstacles that they perceive as inhibiting them from teaching well (Gallard and Southerland 2008). One of the intents of the research is to identify rationales teachers use that locate the reasons for academic failure. Did teachers place blame on students or the education system itself? For example, a teacher might use a student's social and economic condition, assert that a family or parents did not care about the education of their children, and/or identify a lack of English language ability as reasons why students do not learn science. They may also point to administrative demands such as excessive paperwork or redefining learning as successfully passing an end-of-the-year standardized test. The resulting impression, after analyzing the data, is that teachers find mechanisms (rationales or justifications) to dissociate themselves from the complexities they must deal with on a daily basis. However, another way of viewing this is that students bring into classrooms problems and situations that are so overwhelming that teachers must distance themselves from them and create new owners (e.g. administration, parents, society) onto which to pass the issues. By doing so, they are then able to dismiss contextual factors that heavily influence or even negate efforts to teach and help students learn. In other words, distancing allows educators to give up ownership of many problems.

However one chooses to define the issue, the bottom line is that teachers are overwhelmed when the difficulties of society enter their classroom, and teachers are at a loss as to what to do with many students. …